|Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin, January 1936|
He delivered the speech at a secret session of the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th congress, where the audience was senior officials who had some knowledge of Stalin’s crimes, but now for the first time they could see the detailed picture.
Ostensibly, Khrushchev’s intention was to draw the Communist Party towards Leninism by destroying the Stalinist cult that was still powerful three years after Stalin’s death. His real motivation, however, was to consolidate his power. By exposing Stalin’s crimes, he hoped to sideline the Stalin loyalists such as Vyacheslav Molotov with whom he was engaged in a power struggle.
Khrushchev was a staunch communist. His speech glosses over Stalin’s campaigns of mass terror in which millions of Soviet citizens were starved to death, or were unjustly taken into custody, and tortured and liquidated. He condemned Stalin only for the crimes which he had committed against the members of the communist party.
But Khrushchev could not have foreseen that even a speech, which dwelled on a small fraction of Stalin’s crimes, would unleash forces that would eventually destroy the Soviet empire.
Inside the Soviet Union, Khrushchev’s speech was published in 1988, some 32 years later. But it got leaked to the outside world within a month. By June 1956, the speech had been published in a number of newspapers of USA and Europe.
The idea that Stalin misused his great power for more than three decades had a dramatic impact in Eastern Europe, where people became restive to gain freedom from Soviet communism. There were revolts in Hungary and Poland in the later part of 1956. Even though the revolts were quickly crushed by the Warsaw Pact troops, it was a blow for Khrushchev because the Stalinists were able to claim that the policy of rejecting Stalin was flawed.
The Soviet communists continued to support Khrushchev's “de-Stalinization” campaign because they feared that if he lost power, the post of Soviet premier could go to another tyrant like Stalin. However, in 1964 Khrushchev was forced to step down, and this paved way for Leonid Brezhnev’s twenty year reign, which was marked by stagnation and a partial return to Stalinism.
But Khrushchev’s speech of 1956 was never forgotten by many communists. One was Mikhail Gorbachev, who in 1956 was a student at Moscow University. He came to power in 1985 and tried to reform the Soviet society. He didn’t succeed. Stalin’s Soviet Union proved impregnable to reforms, and the empire was dissolved on December 26, 1991.
Here’s a look at the highlights of Khrushchev’s speech:
Lenin's Testament and Remarks by Nadezhda Krupskaya
Khrushchev recalled Lenin’s Testament, a document that Stalin had suppressed for three decades, in which Lenin has warned that Stalin must be removed from the post of General Secretary because he was excessively rude, lacked tolerance, kindness and considerateness toward his comrades, and was likely to abuse his power.
Khrushchev read from several letters that Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya had written to complain about Stalin’s bad behavior. On December 23, 1922, Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote to Lev Kamenev, who was at that time head of the Politburo, complaining that Stalin had been excessively rude with her.
In March 1923 Lenin sent a harsh letter to Stalin:
Dear comrade Stalin!
You permitted yourself a rude summons of my wife to the telephone and a rude reprimand of her. Despite the fact that she told you that she agreed to forget what was said, nevertheless Zinoviev and Kamenev heard about it from her. I have no intention to forget so easily that which is being done against me. I need not stress here that I consider as directed against me that which is being done against my wife. I ask you, therefore, that you weigh carefully whether you are agreeable to retracting your words and apologizing, or whether you prefer the severance of relations between us.
SINCERELY: LENIN, MARCH 5, 1923
Stalin’s Concept of “Enemy of the People”
Khrushchev revealed that in the late 1920s, Stalin introduced the concept of enemy of the people which granted the penal organs of the state the absolute power to deploy extreme methods for annihilating political adversaries. Khrushchev said:
“Stalin originated the concept “enemy of the people.” This term automatically made it unnecessary that the ideological errors of a man or men engaged in a controversy be proven. It made possible the use of the cruelest repression, violating all norms of revolutionary legality, against anyone who in any way disagreed with Stalin, against those who were only suspected of hostile intent, against those who had bad reputations. The concept “enemy of the people” actually eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight or the making of one’s views known on this or that issue, even [issues] of a practical nature. On the whole, the only proof of guilt actually used, against all norms of current legal science, was the “confession” of the accused himself. As subsequent probing has proven, “confessions” were acquired through physical pressures against the accused. This led to glaring violations of revolutionary legality and to the fact that many entirely innocent individuals – [persons] who in the past had defended the Party line – became victims.”
The Great Purge of 17th Party Congress
Khrushchev shocked the audience by revealing that in Stalin’s great purge of the 1930s thousands of innocent communists were arrested on false charges and were subjected to brutal torture to force them to confess that they had conspired against the state. In most cases the executions were carried out after the confessions had been extracted.
There was indignation in the hall, when Khrushchev said that “of the 139 members and candidates of the Central Committee who were elected at the 17th Congress, 98 persons, i.e., 70 percent, were arrested and shot (mostly in 1937-1938).” Further, Khrushchev said, “The same fate met not only Central Committee members but also the majority of the delegates to the 17th Party Congress. Of 1,966 delegates with either voting or advisory rights, 1,108 persons were arrested on charges of anti-revolutionary crimes, i.e., decidedly more than a majority.”
The Murder of Kirov and the Subsequent Purge
Khrushchev alleged that Stalin had ordered the assassination of one of his most trusted aides Kirov in 1934. But Stalin falsely claimed that Kirov was killed by counter-revolutionary members of the Communist Party because he wanted to use the murder as a pretext for passing a new directive which gave unlimited powers to the intelligence agencies and the judicial organs to arrest people and execute them after obtaining confessions through torture.
According to Khrushchev, many senior members of the politburo were arrested and subjected to terrible torture to extract the confession that they were involved in Kirov’s killing. He said: “Many thousands of honest and innocent Communists have died as a result of this monstrous falsification of such “cases,” as a result of the fact that all kinds of slanderous “confessions” were accepted, and as a result of the practice of forcing accusations against oneself and others.”